They're coming thick and fast – hitting the in-box, flooding the mailbox, blaring from the TV, and sprawling across the newspaper. Yes, it's that time of year again, when grey skies and chilly temperatures have every travel agent in the country advertising holidays to exotic, sun-drenched destinations. Lucky you if you're able to take up the offer but for those who know they're going to be lighting the fire or turning up the heat pump instead, there is another way to enjoy the heady excitement foreign climes. Winter is when I hit the kitchen spice drawer, armed with a bag of seed raising mix and some recycled seedling punnets.
Those dry, aromatic whole spices you keep in your pantry, provided they're not too old (and the best way to ensure this is to purchase a fresh pinch of each from an organic or wholefood store) will very likely sprout and grow in the warmth of your own winter-warmed home. Sow them, and you have all the excitement of discovering what a cardamom bush or a fragile cumin plant looks like. You'll get to see, first hand, the plant from which sesame seed is harvested, what the leaves of a clove shrub or star anise tree look like. I enjoyed sowing spice seed for years before I actually made it to Kerala in the south of India, and Penang in Malaysia, and saw with my own eyes these intriguing plants growing in their steamy, tropical surrounds. But long before that, my exotic plantings had lured my whole family into a geographic frenzy of searching through atlases, consulting websites, and lugging home library books on spices and the history of spice traders. While your kids may show no interest in your cabbages, they'll almost certainly be captivated by your pepper or vanilla vine. In fact, I put my son's travelaholic nature down to his early kitchen 'journeys'!
Sowing spice seed isn't difficult. To ensure the seeds are viable, first chit (sprout) them on a moist paper towel placed inside a small clear plastic bag and kept in a warm place. Remind yourself that you're replicating a steamy jungle floor, which means that the seeds must be kept warm, moist, but not so hot that they will 'cook'! As seeds germinate, lift them, paper towel and all, onto a punnet of damp, fine seed raising mix, and cover gently. Covering seeds with soil twice the depth of the seed itself is a good rule to go by. Cover the punnet with plastic film through which you have pierced a few small holes, and set it in a cosy spot, again taking care not to "cook" the seeds – warm, even heat is what you're aiming for so consider placing them on top of a hot water cupboard or a windowledge, providing it doesn't receive the full force of the mid-day sun. Once green leaves appear, remove the plastic from the punnet to allow growth, and transplant as the seedlings require more space.
Of course, there's no need to stop at spices. Lentils, soup-mix grains, and dried beans all provide winter amusement – just ensure they have not been heat treated and you'll be on your way to a winter window ledge of very unusual pot plants!